Essay: The View From Olinger Crown Hill


I find that there are few things more life affirming than walking through a cemetery on a gorgeous day. As your eyes pass over each headstone, names and dates tumble through your mind, drawing associations and thinking of questions for the dead.

Walking through the Olinger Crown Hill Cemetery on a clear spring day, I saw the tombstone Ulysses S. Grant who was born in the mid-1870s and died in 1919. You wonder how he felt being named after a war hero and president. Did he feel dignified? Was it annoying? Did he feel like Michael Bolton in Office Space?

Further back, walking off the trail, there’s an area for infants born a hundred years ago. Here lies James D. Norton, alive for three months in 1916. And others. Unsure whether to feel lucky to have survived infancy or slump my shoulders in grief, I took time to do both.

Off in the far corner, the military men are divided by wars they served in. Among the older graves stands a monument to the Spanish American War. What was that war even about? Did it even matter?

More importantly: was it worth it?

Moving on, I saw the tombstone of a 26-year old World War II veteran. He survived the war but not the 1950’s. You think about all the sagely WWII veterans who lived to old age and how admirable they all were. Why didn’t this one make it?

What did these people know? What did they see? The history books overlook them and their memories departed with them.

Among the we are forced to answer the question Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) felt was central to life itself:

“My question, the one which brought me, at the age of fifty, to the verge of suicide, was the simplest of questions, the one that every man carries in the depths of himself, from the stupidest child to the wisest old man–the question without answering which life is impossible, as I indeed experienced. Here is that question: ‘What will come of what I do now, of what I will do tomorrow–what will come of my whole life?’ Formulated differently, the question would be the following: ‘Why should I live, why desire anything, why do anything?’ It can also be put like this: ‘Is there a meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the death that inevitably awaits me?’

We are built to confront this question, whether or not we are prepared to answer it. Any other secular place around town lacks the gravitas to pose these weighty questions to us. A higher meaning might be advertised in a department store but good luck actually finding it.

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